One of the many mysteries of autism centers around eye contact. It is true that many individuals on the spectrum don’t make eye regular contact. Why is this? In order to unravel this mystery, you must first understand the function of eye contact, and how it develops in infancy.
Babies and eye contact
Check out this picture of a Mom with her infant; note how the baby’s eyes are glued to his mother’s. Infants are hardwired to fixate on parents’ and caregivers’ faces. A loved one’s face holds the key to understanding the social world. Young children spend hours studying our faces, and through simple interactions, quickly learn the meaning of our expressions, verbalisations and intonation. As an infant develops, his world expands quickly beyond faces to shared experiences; from peek-a boo type interactions involving just us, to sharing perceptions of tastes and objects with extended family members. One constant; as a child’s communicative prowess expands, his parents are the “Rock Stars” of his world, expanding his experiences just as he is developmentally ready.
Now we know how infants respond to us. But what do we do to elicit this type of response? We use short, sing-song-type phrases complete with goofy antics and faces. We act like circus clowns! It’s through this type of exaggerated, chirpy communication that our young begin their journey toward being communicative experts. Over time, and through hundreds of “up close and personal” encounters, our children learn to navigate the social world.
What makes autism different?
So what prevents eye contact in individuals with ASD? Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder, which means that as a result of a child’s neural make-up, pieces of their development were literally missed. ASD children typically don’t experience the piece of development in which nonverbal communication is mastered. As a result, they don’t use their parent’s facial expression and body language to make meaning of things. Therefore they don’t understand the vast amount of information and joy that lies behind these subtle, yet powerful channels of communication.
Can we teach eye contact?
Can eye contact be learned? Imagine this scenario. A young boy is being prompted to look at his therapist. He receives a reward when he “references” her (looks at her face). Is he learning to make eye contact? Yes, he is – but don’t be fooled. It may make his parents or his therapist feel better when he looks at them, but it’s very unlikely that he understands what he’s looking at, why and how to respond! If you’ll pardon the expression, he missed out on the “face time” that Mother Nature intended him to have! Rote eye contact is static; eye contact for social understanding is very different, and is dynamic in nature.
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